After a whirlwind of the most breathtaking beaches, majestic waterfalls and vast volcanoes in the North Island, we knew it was time to venture to the next part of our trip- to the South Island! Emotionally, it wasn’t an easy departure due to the many I-can’t-believe-that-we’re-here moments at every encounter with nature, but the final goodbyes to new friends were equally difficult. Thankfully, we left knowing that an entire island awaited us and that social media would keep our friendships in tact!
Originally known under its Maori name as Te Waipounamu, the South Island is famous for its mountains, ski excursions, glaciers and hiking trails. Considering all of the places and recreational activities that lay ahead of us, one month between the two islands is not nearly enough to explore this country. We managed to tour the larger but less populous island in one-week in lieu of our pre-existing plans to our next country. After a friend outlined an incredibly ambitious itinerary through the mainly inland journey, we knew this road trip would not be for the faint of heart but we were up for the challenge! In five days we covered 1,434 miles ( ~2,300 km) filled with remote locations and once in a lifetime experiences and it was well worth it!
Why it’s important to plan your road trip ahead of time
New Zealand has so much to offer that it isn’t easy for travelers to select which sights are worth visiting. Travelers should be incredibly meticulous about their itinerary because for some, the first trip to New Zealand may be their last considering the distance and the flight costs to travel to the country. We were fortunate enough to maximize our time in the South Island using a travel itinerary that helped us explore the points of interest. For the traveler on a time crunch, we’ve compiled a roadmap of attractions to help you navigate the South Island! Use these tips to help plan your next adventure!
Where to start
We started our road trip from Christchurch because our flight to Australia departed from Christchurch International Airport. The city serves as a great starting point since the airport receives domestic and international flights from all over the world and is a gateway to a variety of tourist attractions.
It is worth noting that Christchurch experienced a massive earthquake in 2011 so you may see abandoned parking lots or a few dilapidated buildings in the heart of the city however it will not hinder your ability to explore the city or its surroundings. We kicked off the trip by heading south because we wanted to visit one of the most unusual beaches on the planet.
Our travel route through New Zealand’s South Island
Christchurch to Moeraki Boulders
The drive from Christchurch to the Moeraki Boulders is about 3.5 hours, but be sure to schedule a few stops to take photos along the way! Access to the beach can be obtained by car or tourist bus via Moeraki Boulders Road. The narrow driving path guides you directly to the beach, gift shop and café. Once you arrive onsite, a sturdy wooden stair case will descend onto the beach without breaking a sweat over a hike.
Once you are here
The Moeraki Boulders on Koekohe Beach are a group of large spherical stones varying in size but all equally impressive. Some of the boulders are clustered at the edge of the evening tide, while others are further inland, unaccompanied by nothing else other than the vast sand. To the amateur eye, the circumference of the rocks are difficult to gauge since the bulk of it is buried underground, leaving the peaks exposed for locals and tourists to admire. Some scientists estimate that the boulders weigh several tons and measure up to 12 feet in diameter! To gain context of their size, you have to stand next to one, or in Lucas’s case- lounge in one! Clearly he looks like a little duckling about to hatch from a prehistoric dinosaur egg!
Tip: It’s best to visit the beach during low tides to ensure that the water has receded low enough to view the boulders that are located at the water’s edge. We visited the beach around 5 o’clock in late April which was just in time to catch sunset at 5:30 pm.
While admiring the Boulders, we started to ask ourselves, How were the Moeraki Boulders formed? What is the composition of the Boulders? How did they get there in the first place? This is pretty typical as many tourists share the same level of curiosity. We were so inquisitive that we decided to use our precious cellular data to uncover these questions.
Maori legend has it that the boulders represent the eel baskets, calabashes, and kumaras washed ashore from a sailing canoe, the Araiteuru, when it was wrecked during a great voyage. The name Moeraki (Moerangi) means “drowsy day.”1
According to the New Zealand Department of Conservation, the geological marvels were exposed by erosion of sedimentary rocks laid down from 65 – 13 million years ago. The Moeraki Boulders, which are spherical concretions, are said to be the result of ongoing precipitation of calcite in mudstone over the years.
Many of the smaller boulders that were around in the 19th century were taken by individuals who used them to decorate their gardens or tourists who decided to steal them as souvenirs. Wow, the nerve. People seriously had no respect for the land. Today, the Moeraki Boulders are legally protected as it is prohibited to damage or remove them from their natural environment.
Plan to spend about 30 minutes there. If you are not in the area, we would advise that you pass on this location and move onto the next adventure since it is out of the way.
Moeraki Boulders to Lake Tekapo (Church of Good Shepherd)
From The Moeraki Boulders, the drive to Lake Tekapo is roughly 2.5 hours northwest. Judging from a map it may look like we backtracked a bit but it was worth going out of the way to see the Boulders since we were relatively close in proximity. From here on out we traveled inland with a few exceptions. The scenic drive along the coast gave us time to listen to our audio books and enjoy the natural beauty of the South Island.
Once you are here
Lake Tekapo is known for its unusual milky-turquoise color that is created when glaciers grind the fine rock-flour that is suspended in the water. It is nothing short of majestic! The town faces the highly pigmented lake with a backdrop of the Southern Alps.
Fortunately, the area is invulnerable to tourist developments that would infringe on its natural surroundings, giving visitors the ability to freely roam the premise and sit by the water’s edge without being disturbed. The most striking and only structure on Lake Tekapo is the famous Church of Good Shepherd located just along the bank of the lake. The Church was built in 1935 and is still used as a place of worship and weddings, attracting thousands each year. The stone church is perfectly positioned to give the congregation and its visitors a direct view of the picturesque lake from the first step into the church. As we stepped into the sanctuary, Lucas and I immediately felt a reverence in the intimate space. An air of peace and tranquility that could easily be obtained without a formal church service. The view from the pew was that breath-taking. A small sign reminded visitors to remain behind the roped boundaries out of respect for the sanctuary and suggested a small donation for the maintenance of the property. The modest monetary request was certainly justified considering the amount of tourists that arrived by the bus loads.
Lake Tekapo to Lake Pukaki
The scenic drive from Lake Tekapo to Lake Pukaki is approximately 35 minutes. Before we reached State Highway 80, we stopped at the information center to get an iconic view of Lake Pukaki and Mount Cook in the foreground and to learn more about the surrounding area.
Once you are here
Lake Pukaki is famously known for its mesmerizing milk blue color and, interestingly enough, as the setting for Peter Jackson’s ‘Lake-town’ in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Apparently, the alpine scenery impressed Peter Jackson so much that he used this region in three major scenes in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit Trilogies. Fortunately for us, it was a beautiful sunny day to witness the pristine water and snowcapped mountain peaks. We were so awestruck by the scenery that we decided to use it as a perfect excuse to break for lunch. Even with a panoramic view from our car, we needed to get closer to this uniquely vibrant lake.
For a closer view of the water, carefully follow the path that leads you toward the bank while balancing yourself on the lake’s smooth boulders. The brief walk is possible to complete by young and mature tourists alike however accessibility to the lake’s bank will be a challenge for those in need of a non-obstructive footpath. Luckily, the landscape can be admired just as easily from the information center without venturing to the lake’s edge.
Lake Pukaki to Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park
At over 12,300 feet high, Aoraki Mount Cook is New Zealand’s tallest mountain with the Southern Alps in plain view. As with all natural wonders in New Zealand, Mount Cook and its surrounding alpine peaks are so grandiose that it doesn’t take much to realize why the aerial views of the region were used in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Which makes you wonder, what hasn’t been filmed in New Zealand?!
Once you are here
Depending on your interests, Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park offers a variety of outdoor activities including camping, hunting, mountain biking and hiking trails with varying degrees of difficulty. We opted for a 2.5 hour easy walking trail to get a closer view of the mountains, lakes and hidden treasures. The trail is comprised of mostly gravel except for an elevated and sturdy wood platform that hovers over an open field of high grass. Depending on your adventurous spirit, you may think twice about completing the trail we chose if you have a fear of suspension bridges- we went over three and that was only one-way! But don’t fret! There are a number of trails to choose from that are suitable for people of all ages and abilities with the option of selecting how far you want to explore. As a key tip, be prepared for heavy rainfall, snow and/or high winds as the weather has been known to change suddenly in the area.
Lake Pukaki at Night to Stargaze
It may seem odd to suggest revisiting Lake Pukaki in the same day but the truth is, it’s imperative that you do. Here’s why: New Zealand’s South Island is home to the darkest skies in the world. Yes, the world.
Once you are here
The dark, clear sky will make the cellestial heavens appear closer to earth to easily spot the ethereal beauty of constellations and planets. As novice stargazers, we were psyched!2 Now you see why you have to revisit Lake Pukaki at night? It was worth every minute as Lucas captured the Milky Way and we both spotted a shooting star on two separate occasions. If you are apprehensive about backtracking to Lake Pukaki don’t worry, the stargazing spot at Peter’s Lookout is on the way back from Mount Cook. Take a moment to throw your head back and observe an impressive view of stars and planets with the naked eye. You’ll thank us later!
We realize that the information and photos may be sensory overload, so this concludes Part I of How to Explore New Zealand’s South Island in 5 Days! Head back to the blog this week to read Part II of our South Island road trip!
Have you been to any of these locations? What should we look out for the next time we’re there?! We’d love to know in the comments below!
2. New Zealand’s South Island was recently accredited as an International Dark Sky Reserve since much of the country is light pollution free in this region.